Give And Go: Looking back at the most notable offseason signings
Give-and-Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: assessing the most notable signings of the 2012 summer free agency period. (All stats and records are through Tuesday, Jan. 8.)
1. With the midway point of the season approaching, is there a big-dollar deal ($10 million or more per year) signed last summer that’s already worth panicking about?
Ben Golliver: Sometimes the first names that come to mind are the best names. Here, I think two 2008 draft picks who received max offers in restricted free agency — Pacers center Roy Hibbert and Hornets guard Eric Gordon — are the clubhouse leaders for being panic-worthy. I was on board with both players being worth those four-year, $58.4 million contracts (with starting salaries of $13.7 million this season), but the jury is still out in each case.
Hibbert’s struggles have been well-documented. He’s subject to bouts of invisibility, his 40.1 field-goal percentage is far and away a career low (Hibbert said recently that a wrist injury has affected his shooting) and his numbers are pretty much down across the board. His play hasn’t stood in the way of Indiana’s success, at least not yet, but max players are supposed to be the wind beneath the wings, not the anchor dragging along the sea floor. The good news for the Pacers, who are surely already bracing for a max-type offer to Paul George in 18 months, is that Hibbert’s deal covers only four years rather than five.
As for Gordon, I’m certainly not in the camp that seemed to question his commitment to the game or to the Hornets earlier this season. The panic is all tied up in the right knee that he just can’t seem to get healthy. Retaining Gordon was a calculated risk for New Orleans, and so far it’s proceeding down the worst-case-scenario path. You hate to write off this entire season in judging Gordon, given that there are still three full months left, but a total panic meltdown should probably be delayed until the start of next season. If he doesn’t come into camp in 2013-14 fully ready to go, it will be “gulp” time for the Hornets and their fans.
Rob Mahoney: I’m admittedly not all that worried about any of the big deals signed. Hibbert’s contract is massive, but that’s the cost of doing business for a Pacers team that wanted to retain its core. Gordon’s deal was obviously inflated because of an offer sheet from a desperate Suns team, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt with regard to his injuries for the moment. A few bad breaks in a short span should not define a player’s career, and Gordon deserves a chance to increase his NBA sample size before we start conjuring gloom.
If forced to choose, though, the most concerning big-money deal is the Nets’ five-year, $99 million commitment to Deron Williams. No one blamed the Nets for giving Williams the max, nor should they have; the 28-year-old point guard was crucial to the Nets’ offseason overhaul (in terms of basketball product and the franchise’s general image), and, in theory, he was completely deserving of such a deal. But every year Williams seems to drift further away from his career-best marks, and there may well come a point where we stop waiting for the old Williams to return. That would be a significant blow for the Nets, who have filled their cap sheet to the brim and have so few tradable assets to spare. Brooklyn is fine for the moment, largely thanks to Brook Lopez. But as Gerald Wallace and Joe Johnson decline with age and Williams potentially becomes a shadow of his former self, where might that leave the Nets?
2. Who is the early favorite to win Executive of the Year?
BG: I see at least three legit contenders for the award (which is voted on by league executives). Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald has to be on the list. His summer was active (he added Ronnie Brewer, Marcus Camby, Chris Copeland, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, Pablo Prigioni, Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace and re-signed J.R. Smith to a steal of a contract that pays him $2.8 million this season), filled with tough decisions (choosing to end Linsanity and go with three new point guards) and loaded with creative sign-and-trades to add veterans who might have looked unattainable at first glance. If the Knicks finish in the Eastern Conference’s top four, it will be hard to argue against Grunwald’s selection.
His top competition would seem to be the Clippers, who achieved a similarly active and successful overhaul. The major question is whether the roster-building credit goes to owner Donald Sterling, new GM Gary Sacks, coach Vinny Del Negro or chief recruiter Chris Paul. Regardless, L.A. added Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, Grant Hill, Ryan Hollins, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf while re-signing Chauncey Billups. Some of those names remain question marks because of health reasons, but Barnes and Crawford have been home runs.
As always, Thunder GM Sam Presti should be in the mix. You could argue that Oklahoma City has had the best season of any team that made a transformational move during the offseason or preseason. When the competition is Brooklyn, Boston and the Lakers, though, I guess that’s not saying much. Still, the James Harden trade has worked out better than could have been reasonably expected, thanks to Kevin Martin’s play and Serge Ibaka’s improvement. And OKC can still look forward to Jeremy Lamb’s potential and what should be a solid lottery pick. That’s an embarrassment of riches. Presti sort of has a John Stockton quality to his management style: He makes his name on consistent, relatively quiet greatness rather than flashy peaks and valleys. Like Stockton, Presti’s impact probably isn’t best measured in annual honors.
Two longer shots: Hawks GM Danny Ferry and Rockets GM Daryl Morey. Ferry has a top-three team in the East even though his primary goal was to achieve maximum cap flexibility last summer. Morey, thanks to his blockbuster Harden acquisition, has the foundational piece he’s sought for so long and a mishmashed roster that’s found its way into the Western Conference playoff race. Will colleagues really reward Ferry, whose best move was to dump Joe Johnson, or Morey, whose reputation has taken a bit of a beating with Royce White’s extended absence? Probably not.
RM: I have no problem with either Grunwald or Presti as candidates, but Ferry and Morey deserve to be in the conversation as more than just long shots. As far as Ferry goes, in how many cases does a team clear up its finances and get better overnight without sacrificing its hard-earned flexibility? Gone is Johnson, the iso-heavy star with an albatross of a contract, and in are Lou Williams and a cast of capable teammates on expiring deals. Josh Smith could have been dealt but wasn’t’ Marvin Williams was dealt for Devin Harris in a move that saved the Hawks the burden of Williams’ $7.5 million 2013-14 player option; and Kyle Korver was acquired from Chicago for a mere trade exception. Most of the roster is set to turn over at season’s end, but that hasn’t stopped Atlanta from claiming the third-best record in the East. It takes quite a bit of managerial dexterity to maintain such a balance, but Ferry has proved to be incredibly nimble during his first season with the Hawks.
Meanwhile, in Houston, Morey has had a fantastic run of managing the resources available. Although the Rockets couldn’t utilize their assets or flexibility to land Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum, Morey used his cap to great effect in poaching Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin from tax-concerned teams in Chicago and New York, respectively. He also cashed in on Kyle Lowry’s value to score a sure lottery pick that would become essential to the Rockets’ plans to acquire a star. And that, really, is where Morey deserves high praise: Houston added one of the league’s best offensive players (Harden) at the cost of a trading-block fixture (Martin), a late-lottery draft choice (Lamb) and that eventual lottery selection born of the Lowry deal, along with a few minor assets. That’s an incredible turnaround for a team that initially appeared to have once again missed out on the movement of a star player, and a trade that will completely alter Houston’s course over the life of Harden’s five-year contract.
3. What’s been your favorite veteran’s-minimum pickup?
BG: This looks like a two-horse race between players with off-the-court questions: 10th-year veteran Matt Barnes (who is making $1.4 million) and eighth-year veteran Andray Blatche ($1.1 million). Both guys were relatively late signings and both can probably point to their extracurricular history to explain that. Barnes was not brought back by the Lakers and drew headlines for a July arrest. Blatche was released by the Wizards via the amnesty clause after being out of shape throughout the 2011-12 season, and his time in Washington included an arrest for soliciting a prostitute and an incident in which he reportedly punched a teammate.
I was skeptical when the Clippers signed Barnes and even more skeptical when the Nets picked up Blatche, but so far both have delivered value on their meager wages. Barnes is averaging a career-high 10.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.3 steals as part of the Clippers’ potent bench. He’s locked in on both ends and coach Vinny Del Negro will have a hard time not playing him in the postseason. His Player Efficiency Rating of 17.55 ranks No. 10 among qualified small forwards. Blatche is averaging 11.3 points and 6.1 rebounds off Brooklyn’s bench and he has a PER of 23.8, No. 2 among power forwards. On Tuesday, news surfaced that he was questioned in a Philadelphia Police investigation of an alleged sexual assault. Disturbing stuff. Such is life for a GM who gambles on players with character questions. Barnes, meanwhile, has kept his nose clean and his aggressive defensive style fits perfectly on a team that excels in turning defense into offense. He’s my pick and I fully admit he’s been so good that he’s forced me to do a 180-degree turn in just four or five months.
RM: Great choices, both. I’d parrot those selections, but for the sake of variety I’ll also throw in Alan Anderson ($885,120), a wing player who has improved dramatically this season to fill a positional need for the Raptors. The small forward candidates in Toronto (Linas Kleiza, Landry Fields and Mickael Pietrus) have contributed amazingly little, to the point that Anderson shored up the play at that position dramatically by way of his conservative, jack-of-all trades game. His deep shooting is league average (35.5 percent from three-point range), he isn’t much of a creator and his rebounding leaves a little to be desired. Anderson isn’t a standout perimeter defender, either, but he does competent, pro-level work. That combination alone makes the Raptors 13 points better per 100 possessions whenever he’s on the floor, according to NBA.com, largely because of the low bar set by the small forward alternatives. The Raptors have invested plenty in Fields and Kleiza, but it’s been a veteran-minimum player who has essentially bailed them out.
4. Which team made best use of its mid-level or mini mid-level exception?
BG: Barnes’ teammate Jamal Crawford will surely get some love here given his Sixth Man Award-type season and scorching start, but I’ll go with the Hawks’ addition of Lou Williams. Very similar situations for two players who signed mid-level deals with a starting salary of $5 million: go-to scoring options off the bench powering their teams to better-than-expected results. Crawford is averaging 16.5 points to Williams’ 15.4 points (both play just under 30 minutes per game), but Williams is shooting it slightly better overall and is hitting 37.7 percent of his three-pointers. He also edges Crawford in PER and holds slight leads in assists, rebounds and steals, and there’s no question he has significantly less help surrounding him on the Hawks’ roster than Crawford does in Los Angeles.
When it comes to mini mid-level deals (starting salary of $3.1 million), Jason Kidd is looking like the gold standard. The Heat’s Ray Allen was the obvious favorite entering the season, but the 39-year-old Kidd has emerged as an all-around more important player for the Knicks, owing to his leadership skills, knockdown shooting and unselfish attitude that’s spread among New York’s perimeter players. The length of his three-year deal initially looked dubious given his age, and his DWI arrest in July raised even more questions, but Kidd will have proved to be worth every penny if he helps push the Knicks to the East finals, something that now seems like a realistic possibility.
RM: What’s most striking to me about Crawford are the complete lack of caveats when it comes to his play. The most prevalent criticisms of Crawford’s game just haven’t been pertinent this season, as he’s sharing the ball, making so many of his tough jumpers and playing a role for a bench unit that posts some incredible defensive numbers. We can find nits to pick if we go digging through his game, but Crawford’s biggest flaws are no longer so painfully apparent. I, for one, thought the Clippers might benefit more from a traditional off-ball wing who would cut and spot up to make room for Chris Paul, but Crawford has done a fantastic job of filling a variety of roles to help make the Clips that much more dynamic.
Lou Williams, too, is an excellent choice as something of a Joe Johnson by proxy in Atlanta. Having two big men (Josh Smith and Al Horford) with such great ball skills gives the Hawks a really interesting offense, but Williams is an excellent fall-back option for a team that was accustomed to having Johnson around as a failsafe. When the offense gets a bit wild or the Hawks need a bucket by the simplest means possible, they now go to Williams, whose per-minute numbers and scoring style are oddly reminiscent of Johnson’s. (Johnson is averaging 16 points and 3.3 assists per 36 minutes; Williams is averaging 18.7 points and 4.7 assists.)
An honorable mention, if I can cheat a bit: Carl Landry has done a terrific job for the Warriors this season, and though he wasn’t technically a mid-level exception signing, his annual salary ($4 million) falls in that range. Landry’s post scoring and resourceful offensive game have made him a terrific complement in Golden State’s offense, and he’s held his own as a part of the Warriors’ most prevalent crunch-time lineups. There will always be certain concessions with Landry in what he gives up defensively, but that cost is hedged somewhat by his offensive contributions and dramatically improved rebounding — 9.3 boards per 36 minutes relative to a 7.7 career average. All in all, Landry has proved to be one of the best value signings of 2012, and one of the best returns on a MLE-type investment in some time.
5. Which contract now looks like the summer’s most regrettable?
BG: As much as I’m conditioned to just scream “Michael Beasley!” repeatedly whenever this subject is broached, let’s not forget about Landry Fields. Remember, Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo gave Fields a three-year, $18.8 million deal. That contract figure suggested that Fields, a role player in New York, should be ready to play big minutes as a competent starter. Elbow surgery has sidelined Fields for much of this season. In the 10 games he has played, Fields is averaging just 3.5 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 39 percent. His PER in the limited time he has managed to play is a comatose 5.95. This deal looked dubious from the outset and really couldn’t have played out worse to this point, considering Toronto’s early-season struggles and its failures to add any other meaningful pieces in free agency other than Fields (notably, Steve Nash).
Let’s not totally spare Beasley, though. The only upside is that the Suns managed not to totally guarantee all three years and $18 million of his contract. Other than that, all bad. The Suns are terrible and Beasley is, predictably, a huge reason why. Brought on as a go-to scoring option, Beasley is averaging a career-low 9.6 points and shooting a career-low 37.2 percent. A double-double machine at Kansas State, he’s also averaging a career-low 5.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. His assist-to-turnover ratio is essentially even and don’t even mention the defense. It should surprise exactly no one that Beasley couldn’t hold a starting spot, not even on a 12-24 team.
RM: I know I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but I still don’t understand Boston’s motivation for giving Jeff Green a four-year, $36 million contract. I’ll be the first to lead the cheer for Green’s good health, but there really just isn’t much evidence to indicate that he’s all that helpful of a basketball player, or even remotely as dynamic as his reputation would suggest. In what facets of the game, exactly, is Green successful enough to earn this contract? He’s getting better as a spot-up shooter, but far from elite in that regard. One would think he’d be capable of making more plays given his point forward past, but he has trouble creating against NBA defenders. He’s not at all efficient in the post, and he simply meets positional standards on the glass. Green’s general improvement and decent work as a team defender shouldn’t be ignored, but his game doesn’t command even a full mid-level deal, much less an annual salary of $9 million.